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Retirees bid for another chance to transfer GI Bill benefits

Apr. 12, 2011 - 01:42PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 12, 2011 - 01:42PM  |  
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Thousands of military retirees who were eligible to transfer GI Bill education benefits to family members but did not learn that until it was too late to apply are hoping Congress will give them a second chance.

The Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Department do not offer support to retirees who want another shot at transferring benefits to a spouse or children.

And although some members of Congress believe retirees were treated unfairly, loosening this rule is one of many Post-9/11 GI Bill changes being sought whose supporters have not yet identified a way to pay for them.

That has not deterred retirees who feel they lost out.

Transfer rights for GI Bill benefits took effect Aug. 1, 2009, after one year of planning by DoD and VA.

Generally, a service member must make a new four-year military commitment to qualify to share unused GI Bill benefits, but special rules allowed retirement-eligible members to transfer benefits without having to serve longer if they made the transfer while still in uniform.

People who retired before Aug. 1, 2009, also have complained about being denied transfer rights for the new GI Bill. But those who retired after the new program took effect argue that they deserve special attention because DoD, VA and the services did a poor job of explaining the program.

Retired Army Col. Randall Mackey, who retired Sept. 1, 2009, said he would have applied to share benefits with his daughter — if he had known he could. Mackey's last duty day was July 30, one day before the Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect, but he still was eligible to transfer benefits because his official retirement date was more than a month later.

"A lot of soldiers who retired last summer retired before they were aware they had to accomplish any transfer of this benefit before they retired," Mackey said. "This word is just getting out now."

DoD issued guidance on transfer rights June 22, 2009, in time for Mackey and others to have learned about the benefit — if they had only known to read Page 17 of a 29-page policy document.

Mackey tried through official channels to get a chance to transfer benefits but was turned down by the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.

The board "told me that I was aware of this detail but simply chose not to do a transfer," he said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said benefits must be transferred by law while the member is still in the service, with a tiny bit of wiggle room.

"The services have the ability to approve recently retired members who tried to transfer while eligible, and a technical problem precluded completion of the transaction," she said.

Mackey, leading an effort by other retired officers to get the law changed, said he will not give up easily. "Who wouldn't fight to get access to 36 months of tax-free education benefits for their children?" he said.

Legislation is pending before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee to provide a second chance for people who retired before transferring benefits. But Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman, said GI Bill changes like this can advance only if a way is found to cover the costs.

Two other bills to change the policy on transfer rights also are pending before the committee. One would allow children to use transferred benefits until age 26, three years later than now allowed. The second would allow transferred benefits to be used to pay for special education classes for dependents.

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